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Alleged Sinaloa cartel drug trafficker extradited from Ecuador to San Diego

Federal authorities on Friday extradited a 23-year-old Mexican man from Ecuador to San Diego to face charges for his alleged involvement in trafficking drugs for the Sinaloa cartel.

Brayan Alberto Rodriguez Alcala, a resident of Sinaloa’s capital of Culiacan, is accused of being part of the Valenzuela Drug Trafficking Organization, according to federal prosecutors who called the organization “a significant component of the Sinaloa cartel.”

Federal prosecutors have charged nearly three dozen people they suspect of being members of the Valenzuela cell, including its head, Jorge Valenzuela Valenzuela, and his sister, Wuendi Valenzuela Valenzuela, a Chula Vista restaurateur.

Rodriguez Alcala is the first member of the trafficking ring to be extradited to the United States as part of the long-running investigation, according to U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman’s office. He faces three charges involving conspiracies to import and distribute cocaine and a fourth money laundering conspiracy charge.

Rodriguez Alcala is named in an indictment against at least 30 people in which prosecutors contend he and others were involved in a large-scale conspiracy to traffic cocaine within the U.S., send guns and ammunition from the U.S. to Mexico and launder the scheme’s illicit profits.

Ecuadorian authorities arrested Rodriguez Alcala in November while he was in the capital of Quito. An Ecuadorian judge approved his extradition last month, and he arrived Friday morning in San Diego. By the afternoon, he was being arraigned in a downtown San Diego federal courtroom.

Court records in the case do not spell out the specific allegations against Rodriguez Alcala, but do outline some of the allegations against the Valenzuela cell. The investigation of the cell began in October 2020, when authorities arrested its suspected leader, Jorge Valenzuela Valenzuela, at a private airport outside Boston, where he’d flown from San Diego.

Investigators seized 15 cellphones during the arrest, and another 24 phones the next month, when they raided a commercial trucking yard in Otay Mesa.

The massive raid, believed to be the largest of its kind in the Southern District of California, also turned up $3.5 million cash, more than 1,500 pounds of cocaine, more than 50 pounds of fentanyl, about 20,000 rounds of .50-caliber ammunition and hundreds of body armor vests, according to prosecutors and court records.

But it was the phones seized in Boston and Otay Mesa that allowed investigators to peer at the inner workings of the Valenzuela cartel, according to court documents.

Despite the use of encrypted messaging systems on the phones, investigators “recovered tens of thousands of messages, including photos, videos, and voice notes” that allegedly showed the Valenzuela cell was importing thousands of pounds of cocaine, as well as some fentanyl, into the San Diego area. Prosecutors said the cell distributed the drugs to areas across the U.S., and smuggled millions of dollars of drug profits back into Mexico.

Jorge Valenzuela Valenzuela is accused of running the operation from Mexico and San Diego. Wuendi Valenzuela Valenzuela acted as her brother’s “right-hand” woman, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Sutton said during a November court hearing.

Authorities said another brother, Luis Gabriel Valenzuela Valenzuela, was the logistics and financial operator of a money laundering network for Sinaloa kingpin Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who has a $15 million DEA bounty on his head. The brother, who was also known as Julian Grimaldi Paredes, was gunned down in 2020 in Jalisco.

Two years before he was slain, he’d escaped a Sinaloa prison — by walking out disguised as a guard — where he was being held on charges related to the 2016 ambush of a military convoy that left five soldiers dead.

His death is believed to be part of an ongoing power struggle inside the Sinaloa cartel between two factions: those loyal to the 74-year-old Zambada and those loyal to “Los Chapitos,” the sons of the infamous Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who is serving a lifetime prison sentence in the U.S.

The Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación — a “new generation” Jalisco cartel — is also a main player in the violence.

The investigation into the Valenzuela cell is part of a decade-long probe into the Sinaloa cartel and its San Diego ties. Last year, Ismael “Mayito Gordo” Zambada Imperial, the son of “El Mayo” Zambada, pleaded guilty to charges that he played a major role in the trafficking operation headed by his father and “El Chapo.” In 2018, his brother, Serafin Zambada Ortiz, also pleaded guilty in San Diego to drug charges.

A year earlier, an ex-assassin for the Sinaloa cartel was sentenced in San Diego federal court. Jose Rodrigo Arechiga Gamboa, known as “El Chino Antrax,” fled from federal probation supervision and back to Sinaloa — where he was gunned down along with his sister and her husband less than two weeks later.

Staff reporter Kristina Davis contributed to this story.

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